Two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there is growing consensus that the country is again devolving into a hotbed of terrorism activity that is already beginning to affect the region, if not yet capable of reaching the West.
Some of the more damning assessments have come from a United Nations sanctions monitoring team, which warned in a report in June that the Taliban “have not delivered on the counter-terrorism provisions” in the Doha Accords, the agreement that paved the way for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Instead, the report, based on U.N. member state intelligence, warned that “a range of terrorist groups have greater freedom of maneuver under the Taliban de facto authorities.”
The various groups “are making good use of this,” the report added. “The threat of terrorism is rising in both Afghanistan and the region.”
Some estimates put the number of terrorist groups in Afghanistan at about 20, and even some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have raised concerns.
Pakistan, for instance, has repeatedly pointed to a surge of terrorism-related deaths, many concentrated along its border with Afghanistan.
The Taliban have rejected such allegations.
Earlier this month, a Taliban official touted a ruling by supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada forbidding cross-border attacks on Pakistan.
Chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid went even further, telling VOA that Taliban fighters had essentially put an end to the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.
“Those found guilty of indulging in such activities will be brought to justice and punished in line with our legal system,” he said, saying the Islamic State terror group’s Afghan affiliate, known as IS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, had been “decimated” by Taliban counterterrorism operations.taliban-to-mark-august-15-victory-day-against
The Taliban have also gotten a public show of support from U.S. President Joe Biden, who caused a stir last month July when he indicated the Taliban had been true to their word.
“Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban," Biden said in response to a question about the frenzied U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"What’s happening now? What’s going on?” Biden said. “Read your press. I was right.”
A U.S. official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity said Biden was referring in part to the Taliban’s role in killing the leader of the Islamic State terror cell that was behind an August 2021 bombing at Kabul airport. The attack killed 13 U.S. troops and about 170 Afghan civilians.
Other U.S. officials remain wary, though, pointing to long-term plans by both al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan, each of which has the intent, if not the capability, to attack U.S. and Western targets.
"Our intelligence is degraded," the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March when asked about the military’s ability to track the two terror groups.
"I believe we can see the broad contours of an attack [plot],” he said. “Sometimes we lack the granularity to see the full picture."
Some former officials wonder how long it will be before al-Qaida or IS-Khorasan is able to break through.
“Neither al-Qaida nor [IS] in Afghanistan currently has the capability to strike U.S. interests but I don’t agree we can assume that beyond the short term,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former senior U.N. counterterrorism official and sanctions monitoring team coordinator, said during a recent webinar hosted by the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Other analysts have expressed similar concerns.
“Afghanistan seems eerily reminiscent to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with the number of groups that are allegedly active,” said Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group.
“Terrorist groups thrive and indeed flourish amid instability. And that's exactly what we have here,” he told VOA in June.
Here is a look at the Taliban and the major terrorist organizations now operating in Afghanistan, and how they have fared in the two years since U.S. and coalition forces left the country.
Click on the name of the organization to jump to that section, or scroll to read them in order.
Since its emergence in 1994, the Taliban movement, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has been led by an emir, a central figure appointed for life by a religious council of Taliban leaders.
Like his two predecessors, current Emir Hibatullah Akhundzada leads a reclusive life in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, surrounded by his inner circle.
June’s U.N. sanctions monitoring team report said Akhundzada “has become more assertive, projecting control and authority by appointing loyalists to positions of power” while growing ever more conservative.
But Akhundzada’s assertiveness may belie growing frictions within the movement as rumors swirl about his failing health after multiple bouts with COVID-19.
The U.N. report said the movement appears split with one faction, based in Kandahar, loyal to Akhundzada, and a second Kabul-based faction led by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, acting Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqub Omari and intelligence chief Abdul-Haq Wassiq.
Haqqani, who leads the semi-autonomous Haqqani network, also is said to be feuding with other Taliban officials, including First Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Baradar, as the two jockey for power and influence.
There are also questions about the Taliban’s armed forces.
The most recent estimates from U.S. intelligence agencies and U.N. member states are a year old and put the number of Taliban fighters between 58,000 and 100,000, with numbers fluctuating according to the time of year and battlefield conditions.
A U.N. report from May of last year suggested the Taliban were seeking to increase the size of their standing military to as many as 350,000 fighters and even establish a nascent air force, with some 40 operational aircraft captured from the former U.S.-backed Afghan military.
And despite claims of success against IS-Khorasan, there is evidence that the Taliban are struggling to eradicate the group.
“The Taliban have quietly reached out requesting intelligence and logistical support to fight ISIL-K, offering itself as a counter-terrorism partner,” the most recent U.N. report on Afghanistan said, using another acronym for the Islamic State group’s Afghan affiliate.
The same report, though, questioned the Taliban’s promises to distance itself from traditional terrorist allies, saying the Taliban link with al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan “remains strong and symbiotic.”
Moreover, there have been indications that some al-Qaida members are well integrated into Taliban-run Afghan military units.
Some analysts, however, caution that the Taliban’s grip on power should not be underestimated.
“The Taliban holds all the cards,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The Taliban has near total domination of the security situation,” he said during a recent webinar. “Groups like the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which a lot of people think is the real threat that emanates from Afghanistan — it’s a minor player.”
IS-Khorasan is a sworn enemy of both the Taliban and al-Qaida, which has deep and long-standing ties to the Taliban leadership. But IS-Khorasan also benefits from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
According to a June report by the U.N. sanctions monitoring team, IS-Khorasan has exploited both the Taliban’s inability to establish control over remote areas and growing dissatisfaction with Taliban rule.
"Attacks against high-profile Taliban figures raised [IS-Khorasan] morale, prevented defections and boosted recruitment, including from within the Taliban’s ranks,” the U.N. report said.
The increase in recruitment, at least according to intelligence shared by U.N. member states, is significant.
Whereas IS-Khorasan was thought to have between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters at this time last year, the new estimates put the IS affiliate’s force strength at up to 6,000 members.
The intelligence also suggests IS-Khorasan has vastly expanded its footprint.
Once mostly limited to remote parts of Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces, in the country’s northeast, along the Pakistan border, IS-Khorasan is now thought to have strongholds or camps in at least 13 of the country’s 34 provinces as well as a network of sleeper cells that can reach Kabul and beyond.
A subsequent U.N. report, also based on member state intelligence, further warned IS-Khorasan may be building up its ability to threaten the region and even Europe, and that the group “is becoming more sophisticated in its attacks against both the Taliban and international targets.”
Not everyone agrees. U.S. officials in particular have pushed back hard against the U.N. assessment.
The estimate that IS-Khorasan boasts 4,000 to 6,000 members “is thousands more than the [U.S.] intelligence community has assessed or assessed there to be," a senior U.S. official told VOA.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive intelligence, further refuted some of the more dire warnings of IS-Khorasan’s ability to pose a threat far beyond Afghanistan.
“Our view is that ISIS-K has not closed that ambition-capacity gap that it very much hoped to close after the U.S. departure, and indeed has faced some very real setbacks and some very concerted pressure from the Taliban,” the official said.
Officials familiar with the June U.N. report told VOA they are convinced there are some significant disagreements on the state of IS-Khorasan within the U.S. government. Some U.S. officials have publicly stated their concerns.
In March, U.S. Central Command’s General Michael Kurilla told lawmakers that IS-Khorasan “can do an external operation against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months with little to no warning.
A week earlier, Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers, "It’s a matter of time before they may have the ability and intent to attack the West.”
Earlier this year, Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called IS-Khorasan the “threat actor I am most concerned about.”
One area in which officials from the U.S. and other countries seem to be in agreement is that there are questions about IS-Khorasan’s path moving forward.
In June, intelligence officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan told VOA that the IS-Khorasan leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, was killed by Taliban forces in a mountainous region of Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
However, neither U.S. officials nor officials from other U.N. member states who have provided intelligence on IS-Khorasan have been able to confirm that Ghafari, also known as Shahab al-Muhajir, is in fact dead.
Intelligence assessments from a number of countries shared with the U.N. in the months after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan suggested al-Qaida was enjoying "a significant boost" from the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Recent intelligence assessments from the U.N. suggest nothing has changed.
The link between the Taliban and al-Qaida “remains close and symbiotic, with Al-Qaida viewing Taliban-administered Afghanistan a safe haven,” the U.N. sanctions monitoring team said in its June report.
While al-Qaida appears to be maintaining a low profile, “there are indications that Al-Qaida is rebuilding operational capability,” the report warned, pointing to new training bases in Badghis, Helmand, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Zabul provinces.
The number of al-Qaida core personnel is also thought to have grown significantly, from just several dozen members shortly after the Taliban takeover to between 30 and 60 senior officials and another 400 fighters and some 1,600 family members.
Intelligence shared by U.N. member states further warns that al-Qaida members are being given roles within the Taliban’s security forces and that al-Qaida fighters are even benefiting from so-called Taliban welfare payments.
As with IS-Khorasan, the assessments of many U.N. member states clash with intelligence being shared by the U.S.
“These numbers are wildly out of whack with the best estimates of the U.S. intelligence community, and indeed the best estimates of our partners and allies," a senior administration official told VOA in June, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In contrast to the U.N. estimate of 30 to 60 al-Qaida core officials residing in Afghanistan, the senior U.S. official told VOA: “There was one … and we dealt with it," referring to the July 30, 2022, drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Qaida “simply has not reconstituted a presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. departure in August 2021,” the official added, asserting that it is unlikely attempts by al-Qaida to establish training camps in Afghanistan, as the U.N.’s June report claimed, would go unnoticed by the U.S. and its allies and partners.
The disagreement between the U.S. and other countries keeping watch over al-Qaida in Afghanistan goes even further.
Some U.N. member states assert that Afghanistan has been hospitable enough to host visits by al-Qaida core’s de facto leader, Saif al-Adel, and presumed al-Qaida No.2, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, both of whom are based in Iran.
One U.N. member state has suggested that al-Adel has decided to make Afghanistan his new base of operations.
Senior U.S. officials have rejected such claims.
“We do not have indications that the likes of Saif al-Adel have traveled to Afghanistan,” according to the senior U.S. official who spoke to VOA in June. “Al-Qaida, as far as we can tell, and we look pretty closely, they do not see Afghanistan right now as a permissive or hospitable environment in which to attempt to operate.”
Other U.S. officials have played down the threat al-Qaida in Afghanistan currently poses to the U.S. homeland.
“We have achieved what I would call [a] suppressive effect,” Department of Homeland Security Counterterrorism Coordinator Nicholas Rasmussen said in March.
Additionally, some countries’ intelligence services and some analysts suggest the long-standing ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban may be preventing al-Qaida from growing into a direr threat.
“In the case of a stable Afghanistan, the al-Qaida core might consider relocating to other operational theatres, to avoid offending their Taliban hosts,” the U.N. said in its June report. “Member States suggested that, in the mid- to long term, Al-Qaida would be strengthened by increased instability within Afghanistan.”
Just as with al-Qaida core, there are divergent views on the status of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, one of al-Qaida's key offshoots.
In January, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center's Abizaid, called AQIS “defunct.”
Months earlier, an assessment from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said AQIS had maybe 200 members still in Afghanistan.
The most recent assessment by U.N. member states suggests AQIS is not dead, but that its footprint in Afghanistan has somewhat lessened, from up to 400 fighters in 2022 to up to 200 fighters at present.
The U.N. assessment places AQIS fighters in Kandahar, Nimruz, Farah, Helmand and Herat provinces.
Other than the number of estimated fighters, there are lingering questions about AQIS’ viability as a terrorist entity.
A U.S. intelligence assessment that was declassified last year called AQIS “largely inactive,” with many of its members focused more on media production than on plotting terror attacks against the West. Some U.S. counterterrorism officials wondered whether AQIS might eventually be absorbed by the Taliban.
One U.N. member state said its intelligence suggested AQIS may be preparing to try to spread into Bangladesh, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and Myanmar.
But the same intelligence agency warned some AQIS members appear ready to switch allegiance and join with IS-Khorasan.
Other U.N. member states believe AQIS is working more actively with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which like al-Qaida has a strong relationship with the Taliban.
AQIS fighters, including native Afghans and fighters from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Myanmar, were said to have fought alongside the Taliban against the U.S.-backed government prior to its collapse.
AQIS leader Osama Mehmood, and AQIS deputy leader Atif Yahya Ghouri, are both thought to reside in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network is widely considered to be the most influential and strategically successful extremist group in the region.
Prior to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Haqqani network was seen as nominally loyal to the Taliban, with some countries describing it as "semi-autonomous," noting it maintained ties with both al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan.
Since the Taliban takeover, the relationship has grown somewhat more complicated, as the network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also the Taliban’s interior minister.
The network’s ties to al-Qaida appear to remain entrenched, as former al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was staying at a guest house linked to Sirajuddin Haqqani when al-Zawahiri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July 2022.
But tensions with the Taliban have emerged.
In February, Sirajuddin Haqqani publicly criticized Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada for “monopolizing” power.
Some U.N. member states have advised in recent reports that Sirajuddin Haqqani may be trying to build support, possibly to undermine Akhundzada and replace him with Mullah Yaqub, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.
Previous U.N. intelligence assessments warned the Haqqani network a "highly skilled core of members who specialize in complex attacks and provide technical skills, such as improvised explosive device and rocket construction.”
The Haqqani network is also thought to oversee a force of between 3,000 and 10,000 traditional armed fighters in Khost, Paktika and Paktiya provinces, as well as at least one elite unit. The network also controls security in Kabul and across much of Afghanistan.
Newer intelligence assessments shared by U.N. member states suggest the Haqqani network is increasingly getting involved in the production and distribution of methamphetamine and synthetic drugs.
For much of its existence, the group was based in Pakistan's tribal areas as it operated across the border in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network has been accused of perpetrating some of the deadliest and most sophisticated attacks against U.S., Indian and former Afghan government targets in Afghanistan since 2001. They are also believed to have strong ties to Pakistani intelligence.
The U.S. designated the Haqqani network a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, and Sirajuddin Haqqani has a $10 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government.
Intelligence gathered in recent years from some U.N. member states said the Haqqani network has at times acted as a go-between for the Taliban and IS-Khorasan, and that with the tacit approval of the Taliban, they directed the Islamic State affiliate to attack the now defunct U.S.-backed Afghan government.
With U.S. forces no longer in Afghanistan, it appears the Haqqani network has ceased to nurture ties with IS-Khorasan.
Most active on the 2,640-kilometer border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is an insurgent group involved in terrorist attacks in both countries.
U.N. intelligence estimates put the number of TTP fighters between 4,000 and 6,000, up from an estimate of 3,000 to 4,000 fighters last year.
The group's stated objectives are to end the Pakistani government's control over the Pashtun territories of Pakistan and to form a strict government based on Shariah, Islamic law.
Intelligence shared by member states with the U.N. finds TTP, like al-Qaida, maintains a “strong and symbiotic” relationship with the Taliban that is “unlikely to dissipate.”
Recent intelligence assessments suggest TTP has been emboldened by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and is looking to reestablish control of territory in Pakistan.
Although TTP’s ambitions appear to have been boosted by a reunification with several splinter groups, a recent U.N. report cautioned that “TTP capability is assessed as not matching its ambition, given that it does not control territory and lacks popular appeal in the tribal areas.”
Following talks between Pakistani and Taliban officials earlier this month ((August)), Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada ruled cross-border attacks by the TTP on Pakistan to be “haram” or forbidden under Islam.
In the meantime, there is some evidence to suggest TTP fighters have been getting training and ideological guidance from al-Qaida, and some countries have voiced concern that TTP might evolve into an umbrella organization for foreign fighters.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military have killed or captured several TTP leaders over the past two decades.
The group's current leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, has publicly declared allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was founded in the late 1990s with help and financial support from al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. Several IMU leaders have served as part of the al-Qaida hierarchy. The group has sought to replace the Uzbek government with a strictly Islamic regime.
IMU launched its first attack in February 1999 by simultaneously detonating five car bombs in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. The group is also believed to have carried out attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In 2015, then-IMU leader Usman Ghazi and other senior members of the group shifted allegiance from al-Qaida to the rival Islamic State group. The move did not sit well with Taliban leaders, who launched a major military campaign against Ghazi, killing him and nearly wiping out the group.
According to U.N. member states, IMU has somewhat rebounded under the leadership of a new emir, Mamasoli Samatov, and now has anywhere from 150 to 550 fighters.
Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari was founded in 2011 by fighters who left the IMU and fought against the U.S.-backed Afghan government alongside the Taliban.
The group is led by Dilshod Dekhanov, a Tajik national.
Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari is also thought to have about 80 to 100 or so fighters across Badghis, Badakhshan, Faryab and Jowzjan provinces.
Previously, it was also thought to have dozens of fighters in Syria, possibly in Latakia or Idlib governorates.
According to the U.N., Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari 's numbers in Afghanistan had been growing due to the successful recruitment of locals and due to money from the Taliban and funds acquired via its leadership in Syria.
According to intelligence assessments shared with the U.N., the Islamic Jihad Group has been considered "the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan," and is known for expertise in "military tactics and the manufacture of improvised explosive devices."
The group is led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national. The group's second-in-command, Amsattor Atabaev, hails from Tajikistan.
U.N. member states assess that it now has between 200 and 250 fighters.
Islamic Jihad Group fighters have operated across Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, some having fought alongside Taliban forces.
The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, was first established in the Xinjiang region of China, with its first reported attack in 1998.
After 2001, it began getting help from both al-Qaida and the Taliban, and it has been consistently active in Afghanistan since 2007.
According to intelligence estimates provided by U.N. member states, ETIM has between 300 and 1,200 fighters in Afghanistan training for and plotting attacks on Chinese targets.
A U.N. report from June warned ETIM “continues to recruit fighters of various nationalities in an effort to internationalize” and that it “actively expanded the scope of its operations and built operational bases and armories in Baghlan province.”
One U.N. member state warned that ETIM “formulated a long-term plan to train young fighters, with hundreds already trained.”
Intelligence shared with the U.N. suggested the Taliban last year relocated many ETIM fighters from Badakhshan province, which borders China, "to both protect and restrain the group." But more recent intelligence estimates from one U.N. member state cautioned ETIM was working to revive terrorist activities in Xinjiang.
It is thought that ETIM members have been given Afghan passports and identity papers.
In addition to the group's close ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida, it has been reported to collaborate with other groups in Afghanistan, including TTP and Jamaat Ansarullah, an ethnically Tajik faction of the IMU.
There is also evidence to suggest that ETIM has developed closer ties with IS-Khorasan, with some ETIM fighters joining IS-Khorasan operations.
According to recent U.N. member state intelligence, Jamaat Ansarullah remains closely affiliated with al-Qaida and also the Taliban.
The group’s 100 to 250 fighters are led by Asliddin Khairiddinovich Davlatov, with some U.N. members warning up to 30 have been issued Afghan passports.
U.N. member states also warned that JA fighters joined Taliban forces in several offensives against the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front.
Lashkar-e-Islam was founded in the Khyber district of Pakistan in 2004 but relocated to Afghanistan's Nangarhar province in 2014, following clashes with the Pakistani military.
Since coming to Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Islam has clashed with IS-Khorasan, with major skirmishes taking place in 2018 as the two groups fought for control of territory and resources.
Hezb-e-Islami, or "Party of Islam," was founded in 1976 by former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The group shares much of the same ideology as the Taliban, and its fighters have assisted the Taliban in the past.
In 2015, Hekmatyar ordered his followers to help IS fighters in Afghanistan but never pledged allegiance to IS.
Hezb-e-Islami was known to target U.S. forces in Afghanistan, carrying out a series of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in from 2013 to 2015.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, or "Army of the Pure," was founded in Pakistan in the 1990s and is sometimes known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
Led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and aligned with al-Qaida, the group is perhaps best known for carrying out the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed more than 160 people.
Intelligence assessments shared with the U.N. said the group’s leadership met with Taliban officials in January 2002 and was operating training camps in Afghanistan, having previously sent fighters to Afghanistan to assist the Taliban.
Saeed, who has been in and out of Pakistani custody, was found guilty in Pakistan in April 2022 on charges related to terrorism financing and was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
The U.S. is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to Saeed's conviction in the Mumbai attacks. Saeed has denied any involvement.
Ayaz Gul, Patsy Widakuswara, and Anita Powell contributed to this report.